Speech is Silver and Silence is Golden

Note: This article has been updated in 2023.

You may have heard the saying, “Silence is Golden.” When researched this saying, I found it is a part of a saying that goes, “Speech is silver and silence is golden.”

In many cultures or families, a pattern of speech is to interrupt and finish the other person’s sentence. This may be acceptable in a family or friend situation, and yet it is not acceptable for a coach to do so with their client, unless there is a coaching purpose for doing so. More on that in a moment. 

The Gift of Silence

As coaches, one of the most impactful gifts we can give our clients is to let them speak, without interrupting them. This can quickly build trust between coach and client.

Leaving silence between when the client stops speaking and the coach begins speaking can be very impactful for the client. They may not have many times in their life where they are given the space to speak uninterrupted, or reflect further, because someone else speaks and fills the ‘void’ of silence.

That is why speech is silver for coaches, and silence is golden because it’s silence that allows the client to go deeper into their thoughts and feelings, to reflect further than they may normally do. And in that silence, a client will often bring forth more of their wisdom, or deeper vulnerability about how they are feeling.

For MCC skill level, going deeper into the “Who” of the client is a primary focus. Being silent after asking a question or making an observation is a form of respect for the client, to give them the ‘talking stick’ for longer. Comfort with silence is an indication of a coach’s self-mastery and groundedness; that they don’t need to continually speak to add value. Their presence, including comfort with silence, will speak loudly to a client and often say more than any words that are spoken.

What interrupting often indicates

When I’m assessing coaching for my mentor coaching clients, or for the ICF, at MCC, PCC or ACC skill level, one of the quickest ways to determine if a coach is present is if they interrupt their client. Sometimes we have something we think of to say and rather than wait for our client to finish, we say it as we think it, and in the process interrupt them. This often indicates the coach is not present and staying with their client, but instead are more present to their own thoughts and feelings.

Keep the spotlight on your client

When we interrupt our client, we shift the spotlight off our client and onto ourselves. Sometimes our client is sharing something that is exciting for them, or a win for them. Rather than wait until the client has finished sharing, the coach interrupts to say something like, “Wow, congratulations! That’s so great!”

While the intention is good, the timing is poor, because the coach has now stolen the spotlight away from their client and put the spotlight squarely on themselves. It often takes conscious effort to hold back and wait, to allow our client to have their ‘moment.’

The higher levels of coaching mastery are often indicated by the coach being both the observer as well as the fully present partner with their client. This includes coach being an observer of themselves, of their motivations for speaking, and what they are paying attention to. There is a multi-layered listening dance continually present in the coach; listening in the moment, observing in the moment, and all while holding attention on the client-driven coaching objective for the session.

What’s a ‘coaching purpose’ for interrupting?

I often say to my mentor coaching clients that there are no absolutes in coaching. There are times when it is in service of the client for the coach to interrupt mid-sentence. The client needs to experience interrupting as a non-judgmental intervention that truly feels like it’s of service to the client. And coach needs to be aware of how trust is impacted, if they interrupt their client; because the coach may be implying that what the client has to say is not important.

ICF Core Competency #5: Maintains Presence, sub-point #5.6 is, “Creates or allows space for silence, pause or reflection.” This aligns with PCC Marker #5.5, “Coach allows for silence, pause or reflection.” And with MCC Behavior #5.4, “Coach leverages silence to support the client and the client’s growth.”

When is a good time to interrupt the client? A stated coaching purpose might be as a result of a conversation between coach and client that is more likely to be based in observing the client Way of Being. For example, the coach may observe that the coach asked a question, and yet the client is answering in a long story that appears to be avoiding answering the question. In that case, a first coaching skill to use might be an observation such as,

“I notice just now that I asked you how that affected you, and you answered with a story that didn’t seem related, almost as if you were avoiding answering my question. How do you see that?”

The coach might then propose that if that occurs again in the future, the coach might interrupt and check-in with the client. The check-in might be more about how the client is feeling, or what’s beneath the desire to tell a long story.  Coach would need to listen not only to the words of agreement, but also energetic agreement, so client isn’t just blindly doing what the coach suggests. That type of open conversation is an example of a stated coaching purpose for interrupting.

Being explicit with why the coach might interrupt can build trust to a deeper level between coach and client. 

At the same time, when we interrupt the client, there may be a cost, so we need to be conscious of the possible impact of interrupting mid-sentence. We may think we are being in service of the client growth by stopping a story, and yet that could be the coach’s belief based in their model of personal development, or how coaching ‘needs to go’ to keep the client ‘on-track.’ The more we interrupt the client, the more likely a hierarchical relationship will occur between coach and client, rather than a ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ relationship.

Again, there is a time and place for interrupting a client, and I’ve certainly done that. However, as my coaching skills have evolved, I notice that observational comments tend to be better way of conveying a point, and checking with the client, most of the time.

In closing….

The ability to remain silent for longer, while still staying connected to the client, is something that often takes time to master. And yet most of my mentoring clients report that their coaching has improved to the point their client notices in a positive way.

I found this quote by Plato that is worth contemplating; “Wise men (people) speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.”

Written by Carly Anderson, MCC

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